His name is Willie Whiting, and he is almost 30. He is a college graduate, a husband, a dad, and works for a bank in Fort Worth.
Sounds like anybody else.
You might not remember, but Willie is unlike most people you have ever met. Of all the people I have interviewed, few stories hit me like Willie Whiting's.
If during this holiday season you think you are having a bad day and are tired of life's punches, look to Willie Whiting as evidence it's likely just an excuse, or pity.
Willie was on the front page of this paper in November 1999 when he was a senior running back at Fort Worth Dunbar.
He was a quiet 18-year-old then, shy, and reluctant to tell his story. He was not ashamed, but Willie feared ridicule.
Very few people knew that his father, who was living in Florida at the time, had HIV. About the same number of people knew Willie's mother had died of AIDS.
It was Willie who walked into her bedroom to wake her up because he was late for his seventh-grade football game when he realized she had died. Ruby was gone.
After that Willie lived with neighbors, or the occasional family member. Willie had every reason to become just another tragic cliche.
"There is nothing worse than losing your mom," he said recently. "Going through all of that, nothing is worse. Whenever I go through anything bad and all of that, I reflect on that. It helps me cope with everything."
On a personal level, for years I carried some guilt for pushing Willie to give me the green light to print that his mother had died of AIDS.
I was another cliched reporter pushing for a story; it's the job, but this is also just a kid who would have to deal with the fallout, whereas the reporter would not.
I had been told his story would appear on the cover of the paper only if Willie agreed to reveal how his mother died. It felt like such a big deal then.
I called him at his house to ask, and he agreed, but the quiet reluctance in his voice was unmistakable.
The story ran, and the reaction was better than anything either of us could have hoped.
"I gained so much support from people after that," Willie said. He has never tested positive for the HIV virus. "Not once did I get ridiculed. I had a bunch of friends from high school and it made us all closer after that came out.
"It brought me a lot of relationships with people I never thought I would have; people who are still a part of my life today. I do not regret it. It was great. So many people were willing to help me."
The last time I saw Willie was on college signing day in the spring of 2000 when he signed with Texas A&M-Commerce. He smiled, said maybe one or two words, and was gone.
I always wondered what happened to him, and finally found him on Facebook this fall.
The shy kid has been replaced by a grown man, full of good and bad experiences. Lessons, too.
"Do not use a bad situation to do bad things," he said. "Don't let a bad situation stop you from moving forward."
Willie played football at A&M-Commerce, and earned a degree in counseling from A&M-Commerce in '04 and stayed there through '06.
He earned his teacher's certificate, and worked at the Boys & Girls Clubs in Commerce and did some student teaching before he relocated back to the Metroplex a few years ago.
He credits former Dunbar football coach Bob Jones and countless others at the school that helped guide him through an adolescence that was filled with the types of obstacles that can derail a kid forever.
Willie is still in good shape, and plays flag football whenever he can.
"I've still got it. I haven't lost a step," he said.
He was married once, but that didn't work out. He has since remarried and has a blended family with three kids. Another one is on the way.
Today he lives in a town home with his family in the Stop Six neighborhood. The aim is to teach and coach.
He talks to his dad, who still lives in Florida, about every other day. Willie's brother and sister still live in Fort Worth.
Regrets? Not many. Or certainly not that much different from the rest of us.
"I could have done better and I know that now. With me being on my own I didn't take a lot of things as serious as I should have. I mean, you always know," he said. "I'm living day by day now rather than living the future. Everything happened for a reason.
"About the only thing I don't have is just a lot of money all the time. Honestly, I'm happy. If I had a lot of money, maybe my whole personality changes. I have a nice job. I can pay my bills. My family is happy."
Life gave Willie just about every reason not to be where he is today, but instead he figures those reasons are disguised as excuses.
Today, Willie Whiting is almost 30 and preparing to celebrate Christmas with his family and sounds like another ordinary guy.
How he did it ... I cannot even imagine.
Mac Engel, 817-390-7697
Follow me on
And the Big Mac Blog